Synopsis: The tightly scripted world of a vlogger and influencer unravels after she becomes a mother.
Stars: Noémie Merlant, Kit Harington, Meredith Hagner, Reed Birney, Jayne Atkinson
Director: Bess Wohl
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Many men will watch Baby Ruby and tout that they knew what it was about before the film peeled back the last of its tricky layers. 95% of those men will have never changed a diaper or had a baby spit up down their back, either, I’m guessing. Not to generalize (OK, I will), but numerous men have made movies about women having babies and what a damn nightmare it is without seeming to know the first thing about it. Writer/director Bess Wohl’s film isn’t wholly different from many of those same horror films of yore if you lazily step back and look at it from a far distance. But get closer, and you see the work of someone less interested in scaring you than opening your eyes nice and wide.
Celebrated vlogger Jo (Noémie Merlant, Tár) has risen to the top of the competitive world of online influencing. A columnist with a healthy following, she’s known for her skilled eye for perfection and personal touch toward anything she sets out to do. Regularly responding to each comment she receives, she’s a do-it-all, have-it-all modern woman with a successful husband (Kit Harington, Pompeii) and a baby girl on the way. Despite a pushy but means-well mother-in-law (Jayne Atkinson, Free Willy), life is rosy in their remote country home until baby Ruby arrives.
It’s after the bundle of joy makes her debut that Jo’s pristine world goes haywire. After a difficult birth and recovery that Wohl details in strikingly personal visuals, Jo struggles to bond with her new daughter. Fussy and unrelenting in her ability to cry at all hours, Jo loses track of time and eventually her sanity as her lack of sleep leads her to dramatic hallucinations. Is her newborn daughter jealous of the time she spends away from her, resorting to painful payback via methods only an infant can inflict on a mother? Turning to mothers in the area for advice, she’s befriended by neighbor Shelly (Meredith Hagner, Vacation Friends), who, like the others, has found a way to keep her baby quiet…maybe too quiet.
Wohl does wonders with optical cues along the way, keeping us largely juggling our thoughts on Jo’s mental state. At first, chalking it up to new mother worries, the dramatic downward spiral we witness gives the viewer pause to consider going along with Jo’s amped-up conspiracy theories about her family and friends. Or is the explanation simpler than anything we could have concocted? At 89 minutes, Wohl has limited time to dole out tiny clues along the way. Still, like many sophisticated thrillers that operate on a localized scale, the impact of the effort is felt long after the credits have rolled and you’ve had time to absorb it all.
Walking a tricky line in the role, Merlant is stellar as Jo. An easy choice would have been to let the character careen out of control, but Merlant fights for her character to stay afloat longer than we’d expect, making the desperate situation she eventually finds herself in all the more horrifying. Harington’s role is also one to approach with caution. Push it one way or the other, and it becomes a distraction from what Merlant is doing. Thankfully, Harington and Wohl work together to help him find the appropriate middle ground. While I like Hagner as an actress, her character seemed like too much of an unnecessary distraction from the main plot, and I would have taken more scenes with Atkinson’s mother-in-law instead.
Pull quotes from the movie suggest that Baby Ruby is perhaps not the best choice for new parents, but without going too far into the weeds with the film, I would say it’s the opposite. Yes, there are challenging moments to watch, but there’s also an affirmation to be had with the story Wohl is offering to her viewers, that may see some of themselves in the harried mother trying to be the best and failing (in her mind). It’s a horror film, no doubt, but its intelligent construct elevates it higher than you’d imagine at first glance.